With the passing of time comes change. It's inevitable. Some may fear change but no one can avoid it. Change can come suddenly and have an immediate impact, or it can happen gradually over the long term.
Befitting a man who has made a career in professional sports, Hines Ward saw a lot of change. He lived through a lot of change during the course of his 14 seasons as a wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coaches, players, schemes, the stadium where the Steelers play their home games, even the president of the team, all of it changed – some drastically and some subtly – since the time he first arrived as a third-round draft choice in 1998.
For the first time, though, Ward saw change from a different viewpoint. He saw his own role change. And then at noon on Tuesday at the Steelers' practice facility, Hines Ward announced a decision that changed his life.
Since 1999, his second season with the Steelers, Ward started just about every time he was healthy enough to play, and mostly he was the go-to guy. For Kordell Stewart. For Tommy Maddox. For Ben Roethlisberger. For every quarterback who played meaningful snaps for the Steelers for over a decade. Hines Ward is the most productive receiver in Steelers history, a legitimate candidate for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 2011, though, things changed. Their names are Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Ward had to deal with an ankle injury and concussion-like symptoms and , and his number of catches dropped off, his snaps diminished.
"It's different," said Ward in the latter stages of the 2011 regular season. "The plays have been reduced. How do you handle it? They don't give you a guide book on how to handle it."
With no manual to guide him, Ward chose a different resource. Jerome Bettis lived this exact scenario with the same team in the same salary cap era. Ward watched Bettis' role morph from go-to guy for the entire offense to short-yardage back, and then he heard the boos when Bettis would come off the bench to punch the ball across the goal line to cap a 12-play drive.
"I saw Jerome go through it," said Ward. "People thought he was done. I saw the transition. He wasn't the starter. He was the short-yardage specialist guy. He did it effectively. People criticized him because Duce (Staley) was doing the work taking the ball down the field, and he was getting the reward with the touchdowns. But that was what the coach asked him to do. I didn't understand the criticism. Here is a guy who is well respected and there were still doubters and naysayers."
Ward watched Bettis closely during that time and what he saw was a player who accepted the role. Bettis didn't complain, he didn't become a distraction. He did what was asked of him. And so when Hines Ward's role began to change during the 2011 season, he knew there was only one person who could help him with the adjustment.
Ward admitted he spoke to Bettis weekly during the final phase of what turned out to be his final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, during what turned out to be his final season as a professional football player. It was therefore fitting that Jerome Bettis was there in person to hear Hines Ward announce his retirement at noon today at the Steelers' practice facility.
"(Jerome) has always been positive, encouraging," said Ward. "Listening to a guy who has been there, who I have modeled my career after helps a lot. He was the face of the Steelers for a lot of years."
What Bettis told Ward: Put the team first, while understanding that it's not always easy.
"When guys transform to a different role their egos don't always allow them to settle in so they can become a different player," said Bettis. "The key for me was to let Hines know his ego has to be able to transition, more than anything else. A bruised ego will cause you to do irrational things. He understood. Once you can get your ego to accept that this is for the betterment of the team then it's an easy transition to make.
"If you can tell yourself, 'I have been a good player for a long time, and it's time to allow the next guy to have an opportunity,' but all the while still being a leader by example for the younger guys, then you see you have a greater purpose than just scoring touchdowns. The purpose is to leave the position better than you found it. You are able to give your knowledge and understanding of the position to the next guy."
Ward is honest enough to admit there was a point in his career when the numbers were what seemed to be most important, but time and the wisdom of experience changed that.
"It's not about you," said Ward. "At an early age I thought that to be respected among your peers you had to put up those numbers. Early in my career I was selfish, I wanted to do more myself. But looking at it, the years we won the Super Bowl, I didn't have over 1,000 yards but when my number was called I made some key plays in crucial situations.
"I look at those moments early in my career, and my mind-set was a little skewed. You hear all these fantasy football lovers say you didn't score fantasy points. I don't buy into that now. The only purpose to this game is to win the Super Bowl."
Along the way to getting his name etched onto two Lombardi trophies, Hines Ward also took care of a lot of fantasy football lovers. He is the Steelers' all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He has been to more Pro Bowls than any other receiver in franchise history. He has 12,083 career receiving yards, 1,000 career receptions.
"Not many guys have caught 1,000 passes," said Ward. "It means you have to be consistent over a long period. It's like 3,000 hits in baseball. It's a milestone only seven other guys in NFL history have reached."
Hines Ward also accomplished something not even Jerome Bettis was able to pull off – retire with the same team that drafted him into the league. Ward said he's thankful to the Steelers for making sure that one became a reality.
"I have been through a lot with this organization," said Ward. "I feel honored to have been drafted by them, and I played my butt off for them. I wouldn't change it for the world. It taught me about hard work, perseverance, determination and to be mentally tough."
[Steelers All-Time Leading Wide Receiver Hines Ward Retires](Steelers All-Time Leading Wide Receiver Hines Ward Retires)